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Home | Articles | Museum Focus: The Michael C. Carlos Museum

The Michael C. Carlos Museum is often referred to as the “hidden jewel” in Atlanta’s cultural crown. Housing the oldest museum collection in Georgia, the Carlos is tucked away just off Atlanta’s bustling streets and stands as the centerpiece of Emory University’s historic quadrangle at the heart of its idyllic campus. With vast permanent collections and a full schedule of temporary and traveling exhibitions, the Carlos is fast emerging as the South’s premiere museum of ancient art, bringing to the region masterworks from Egypt, the Near East, Greece, Rome, the Americas, and Asia. The museum also boasts a remarkable collection of works on paper from the Middle Ages to the present, as well as art from sub-Saharan Africa.

Fig. 1: Façade of the Michael Graves Building, Michael C. Carlos Museum, Emory University. Courtesy of Michael C. Carlos Museum.

The Carlos has a relatively long and varied history. As early as 1875, a general collection of objects was started in the library at the original campus of Emory College in Oxford, Georgia.1 This early collection was broad-reaching and included minerals, shells, biological specimens, and an eccentric variety of curios. Then known as the Emory College Museum, it was perhaps better understood as relating to the late-Renaissance tradition of a Wunderkammer, or Wonder Room. In the nineteenth century, such collections—in which an indiscriminate assortment of objects and artifacts was gathered and displayed—both augmented and satiated the curiosity of the public about the then-exotic cultures of distant lands and the mysteries of the natural world. For example, at various times in the museum’s history, visitors could inspect a salt crystal from the Dead Sea, the fingernail of a Chinese mandarin, and Georgia’s oldest surviving Maytag washing machine. The museum would retain much of this quality into the 1970s, when legendary film director John Huston was drawn to the museum’s exceptional atmosphere for scenes in his film Wise Blood.

Fig. 2: Egyptian Gallery. Courtesy of Michael C. Carlos Museum.

In 1915, Emory University was established in Atlanta with Emory College as its undergraduate school of arts and sciences. In 1919 the college was physically incorporated into the university. A small group of professors formally established a focus for the existing collection and under the direction of Bishop Warren A. Candler, chancellor of the university, the Emory University Museum was founded; its mission was to preserve and display the collections of ethnographic, biological, geological, archaeological, and historical materials. Through 1985, the collections were housed and displayed in various buildings around the campus, including the Theology Building, the Candler Library, and the Old Law School Building.

Though Emory recognized the need to condense and refine the collection, it also needed a catalyst for action. Happily, in 1981, Atlanta businessman Michael C. Carlos offered to give generously to renovate the Old Law School Building, a 1916 beaux-arts structure by Henry Hornbostel, which would permanently house the museum. Through his largess, celebrated postmodern architect Michael Graves was engaged to design an interior renovation. The museum was renamed the Emory University Museum of Art and Archaeology and was officially instituted as a museum of antiquities and fine arts.

Graves returned in 1993 to design a 35,000-square-foot expansion that opened to great critical acclaim. It was then that the museum took the name of its most generous benefactor and became the Michael C. Carlos Museum. With the expansion, it became possible to conceive an in-depth display of the museum’s permanent collections in twenty-nine galleries. The Carlos had been transformed into more than a laboratory for Emory faculty and students. The new galleries made possible shows from other nationally and internationally renowned institutions, including the Louvre, The British Museum, and the National Museum of Anthropology in New Mexico.

Fig. 3: Rosales Zones Engraved Female Effigy, Central America, Costa Rica, Greater Nicoya Period IV, 500b.c.–a.d.300. Ceramic. H. 121/4", W. 9", D. 63/4". Gift of William C. and Carol W. Thibadeau; courtesy of Michael C. Carlos Museum.

Continuing his relationship with the Carlos into the new millennium, Graves was again called upon in 2000 to design a dramatic gallery renovation to showcase the museum’s 1999 landmark acquisition of ancient Egyptian art and artifacts. The new galleries opened in the fall of 2001, to the delight of scholars and schoolchildren alike. Graves’s latest museum project has been the redesign of the galleries that house the museum’s art of the ancient Americas, which opened September 14, 2002.

To lend context and meaning to its collections and exhibitions, the Carlos serves as a vital source of educational programming for its surrounding community. Through an innovative schedule of lectures, symposia, workshops, performances, and festivals, the museum offers educational opportunities for teachers, schoolchildren, families and community groups. Most of its programs are free of charge and open to the public, and as a demonstration of its educational mission, the Carlos maintains one of the few “suggested donation” admission policies in Atlanta. The museum also brings art, history, and archaeology to the classroom through its Art Odyssey Outreach Program and its Odyssey Online, a dynamic Web site for school-age children that explores the various ancient cultures reflected in the museum’s collections, and it sends out its beloved “mummy mobile” that visits area schools.

These programs enable the community to better appreciate the treasures of the Carlos, which is itself a treasure for Atlanta. For more information, call 404.727.4282 or visit www.carlos. emory.edu. From October 26, 2002, through January 19, 2003, the traveling exhibition of objects from Mesopotamia, Treasures from the Royal Tombs of Ur, will be featured.

Nesbit Shearouse is a devoted Carlos Museum volunteer.

1 Emory College was founded in 1836.

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